Where is Discernment?
I grew up in the United States, but outside of Utah. My family were deeply orthodox believers in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I learned to be very trusting of all church members, especially those in leadership. I saw them through rose-colored glasses, and never encountered evidence to make me think otherwise. I was taught as a youth that a bishop had the gift of discernment and I absolutely must confess my sins or he would know I was lying. I believed that and acted accordingly.
In my patriarchal blessing more than 20 years ago I was told that I was given the ‘great spiritual gift of discernment’ and that it would help me to ‘discern the inner thoughts of others’. There have been times when I felt like that blessing was being realized in my life. A feeling that I could see into someone’s mind and heart and understand their motives. At times it gave me the promised comfort.
I moved to Utah as an adult, 7 years ago. It was a culture shock to suddenly find myself surrounded by fellow church members everywhere I went. Occasionally catching up on the news, I was disenchanted with my childish notions that Mormons are all good and trustworthy. I learned about so many instances of crime and abuse perpetuated by those I would have considered “Brother” or “Sister”, and expected more of. I used to think Mormons behaved better than the general population. Now, I doubt it. They are the same as other people. And some are worse. Some use their positions of power and influence to take advantage of the vulnerable.
This week in my home county, news broke about a current bishop (Lehi,UT, Mill Pond Ward) who was arrested in a sex-trafficking sting. He had contacted police officers posing as prostitutes and offered to ‘manage’ them. He met with them and offered to help them avoid police and get clients. He said he had experience with this (later denied). He put one of the officers’ hand over his genitals and later exposed himself. He was arrested under suspicion of exploiting a prostitute, patronizing a prostitute, sexual battery, and two counts of lewdness. He also served as a police officer in Utah until he resigned in 2012, apparently while under investigation for sexual misconduct.
This makes me sick. Behaviors like this don’t come about suddenly. This man would likely have been giving temple recommend interviews within days of his arrest. The church is taking action to replace him as Bishop, but the damage is done. Having someone who serves as Bishop of a congregation be caught in such un-bishop-like activities damages the credibility of the whole ‘calling’ process. Why would this man have been called as bishop? How I wish there was someone in leadership who would have prevented this man from being put into a position of trust! D&C 46 talks about the gifts of the spirit given to the church, one of the important gifts being that of the discerning of spirits (v. 23). The D&C student manual explains “To Church leaders the Lord gives the gift ‘to discern all those gifts lest there shall be any among you professing and yet be not of God’ (D&C 46:27).” (https://www.lds.org/study/manual/doctrine-and-covenants-student-manual-2017/chapter-18-doctrine-and-covenants-46-49?lang=eng). What ever happened to the gift of discernment in leadership? Aren’t they supposed to recognize when someone in the congregation is ‘professing’ and ‘not of God’? Keeping a predator out of the office of bishop, seems like a prime time for the gift of discernment to have been useful.
According to lds.org, discernment is “To understand or know something through the power of the Spirit. The gift of discernment is one of the gifts of the Spirit. It includes perceiving the true character of people…” (Guide to the Scriptures, “Discernment, Gift of”). In this situation, I think the true character of this bishop was displayed in the way he behaved toward the undercover officers. The very purpose of the gift of discernment was frustrated.
In the Book of Helaman, Nephi displays great spiritual gifts. When a crowd of passers-by gathers to hear his prayers of lamentation on the tower in his garden, he calls the people to repentance and he prophesies and reveals the murder of chief judge Seezoram. Then he discerns through the spirit, that the murderer was Seantum, and that blood would be found on his cloak. (Hel 7-9). Nephi’s story shows a case of God revealing to a church leader happenings that occur elsewhere (murder), as well as who was involved, and where to look for proof.
As a child, these kinds of stories led me to believe that church leaders were similarly inspired, that God would reveal such mysteries to them. Elder Bednar taught that discernment can help us “detect hidden error and evil in others,” (What is Discernment? New Era, June 2018). Who is supposed to detect the hidden evil in our fellow congregants? Who is supposed to detect the hidden evil in our bishops, stake presidents, or other church leaders? Who is going to protect vulnerable people from predators? If this gift is truly the prerogative of our leaders, why don’t we see it in action? I worried as a 12 year old that if I didn’t confess and repent of every little ‘sin’, the bishop would know, and I wouldn’t get to go participate in youth baptisms. Now I see that every day people are lying at every level in the church and getting away with it. Regularly I see in my newsfeed of people called to leadership positions in the church, while hiding heinous crimes. If we don’t know someone is wicked until the law catches up with them, it is too late. The church is littered with people professing and not of God. Discernment is dead in the church leadership.